President Barack Obama came into office believing he could achieve a marked improvement in U.S. relations with China. Administration officials expressed their desire to broaden and deepen dialogue with Beijing while downplaying areas of disagreement.
In her first visit to China as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton suggested that the United States would not henceforth allow disputes over human rights issues to "interfere" with joint efforts to deal with "the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis." Administration spokesmen avoided the use of the term "hedging," introduced during the Bush years to describe ongoing American efforts to maintain a military balance in East Asia, and proposed instead that Beijing and Washington should henceforth pursue a policy of "strategic reassurance" toward one another.
These overtures were not reciprocated. Instead, over the course of 2009-2010, Beijing proceeded to adopt an increasingly assertive, even aggressive, stance toward both its neighbors and the United States. The reasons for this shift are a subject of debate among experts. In the wake of the financial crisis, many Chinese analysts and officials evidently concluded that American power was declining even more rapidly than had been expected.
Aware of their own internal challenges, China's leaders may have believed that a tough stance and an appeal to nationalist sentiment would help bolster popular support. Some in Beijing may also have interpreted the new U.S. administration's policies as signs of weakness that could be exploited.
Over the last two years the Obama administration has responded to China's increased assertiveness by sending its own signals of toughness and commitment under the rubric of a strategic "pivot" or return to Asia. Among other measures, it has proclaimed that the United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, and announced plans to station several naval vessels in Singapore and a small contingent of Marines in northern Australia.
The problems with this new policy are two-fold. Although the administration has since downplayed talk of the "pivot" and now generally speaks of "rebalancing," its rhetoric has caused significant diplomatic difficulties. The notion that the United States was somehow absent from Asia under the previous administration is not only factually wrong, it feeds perceptions of fickleness and raises questions about our staying power over the long run, precisely the opposite of the intended result. Talk of a "pivot" suggests that the U.S. is in the process of disengaging from Europe and the Middle East, and it has also played into Chinese claims that it is Washington that is behaving aggressively, increasing regional tensions.
The more serious difficulty with the "pivot" is that it lacks substance. The administration's tough rhetoric is belied by its decision to cut deeply into defense spending. Planned reductions in the size of the Navy, the principle instrument for projecting U.S. power into the Asia-Pacific region, are especially troubling. When it comes to Asia, the Obama administration has been talking too loudly and carrying too small a stick. Our regional friends and allies welcome signs of increased American attention, but they worry that the United States may lack the resources, and the resolve, to follow through.